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Sugar Hill Building Designed by Star Architect Sparks Controversy

By Jeff Mays | December 3, 2013 11:59am
 The  $80.2 million Broadway Housing Communities building  at 155th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue is scheduled to open in the spring of 2014 with 124 units of affordable housing including some set aside for the formerly homeless, and a children's museum. But some row house owners of Sugar Hill feel the design is out of place with the neighborhood.
Broadway Housing Communities Building Design Draws Mixed Reviews
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HARLEM — Some people call the David Adjaye-designed building at 155th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue "iconic."

The Wall Street Journal — whose magazine named Adjaye, designer of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., the architectural innovator of the year — said the ridged graphite cube-shaped building "doesn't attempt to blend in, but instead establishes an unusual type of architectural dialogue."

But ask some row house and townhouse owners in Sugar Hill what they think of the design of the low-income housing building and children's museum, and the response is much less glowing.

"It looks like a prison to be honest with you," said Lynda Johnson, an assistant professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology and editor and founder of KidStyleSource.com who has owned a townhouse on St. Nicholas Place for 20 years and is a member of the Hamilton Heights Homeowners Association.

Some feel the design does not fit into the context of the nearby Hamilton Heights-Sugar Hill Historic District, which is filled with Beaux Arts and Queen Anne-style 19th-century row houses.

"It's an affront to the historical fabric of the neighborhood," said Yuien Chin of the Hamilton Heights-West Harlem Community Preservation Organization.

Adjaye, whose London-based firm said he was unavailable for an interview because he was traveling, has designed buildings around the world. He did an architectural study of the neighborhood before designing the 13-story building and elements of the structure are meant to reference the area's history.

The rose-patterned relief on the facade references the neighborhood's past as the Heritage Rose District. The saw-toothed design of the cantilevered building represents the bay windows common in area row houses.

Architectural critics have said the building is exemplary of the level of design that should go into affordable housing developments.

“There’s been a lot of attention given to luxury and middle-income housing, but there hasn’t been a discussion about affordable housing in New York,” Adjaye told Architectural Record earlier this year. “It was a subject that architects needed to rethink now, so that we can contribute in a meaningful way.”

Broadway Housing Communities executives agree.

"Once you learn about the building you never look at anything in that neighborhood the same way again," said Melissa Benson of Broadway Housing Communities, who called the building "iconic" and said it is already attracting visitors and new businesses to the area.

The $80.2 million building is scheduled to open in the spring of 2014 with 124 units of affordable housing, including some set aside for the formerly homeless, and a children's museum. A giant plaza will open to the community and an early childhood education center will serve a total of 170 area families.

No one is in disagreement with Broadway Housing Communities' mission to help improve the lives of low-income children and families in the neighborhood, which still suffers from high poverty rates. There were 15,000 applicants for apartments in the building a week after the housing lottery opened on Nov. 1.

"Those numbers tell you that there is much need for this in the community," said Benson.

Area residents also love that an architect of African descent was picked to design the edifice, given Sugar Hill's history as a place where wealthy African Americans and luminaries such as Zora Neale Hurston, Thurgood Marshall, Duke Ellington and W.E.B. DuBois once lived.

But reference the design and tempers flare.

"It's just as vile as I thought it would be," said Michael Henry Adams, an architectural historian who is an expert on Harlem architecture and the author of "Harlem Lost and Found."

"He said he thought about the history of our community but there is no way that can be true because the building is wrong on so many levels," added Johnson.

The differences extend to every aspect of the building. Adjaye's firm said the graphite color is meant to contrast with the historic structures in the neighborhood.

But opponents of the design feel the graphite color was a final smack in the face. Adams said opponents of the design asked Broadway Housing Communities to at least compromise on the color of the building and make it lighter to match row houses in the area but were rejected.

"In some other neighborhood this would have been fine but not here," Adams said. "The building detracts from the community and unduly calls attention to itself. That's not the example of what to do in a historic district."

Benson said opinions about the building are simply a matter of taste and that they've heard from people who love the design.

"Some people love contemporary architecture and some are less enthusiastic about it," said Benson.

Critics like Johnson and Adams says they find those arguments insulting.

"That treats us as if we have no taste or don't understand art," said Johnson. "I've traveled the world and can appreciate modern art. My problem is that the building is not reflective of this community."

The reaction to the building from those on the street varied.

"It's not attractive. I don't like the color or the shape," said Luis Genao, 16, a senior at George Washington High School who was standing outside the subway at 155th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue talking to a friend on a recent afternoon.

"It basically looks like two squares on top of one another with windows," he said.

Tony Hinson, 51, a certified OSHA worker from The Bronx who passes the building regularly said the "unique" building gave the neighborhood "a different flavor."

"Hate it or love it, it's clear they were trying to do something different here," Hinson said before crossing 155th Street. "I can appreciate that."